Dementia Sufferer Defies Diagnosis to Conduct Symphony Orchestra at Age 81: ‘It was magical’
A dementia suffering pianist whose spontaneous composition went viral last year has fulfilled a lifelong dream of conducting a symphony orchestra—which played his own songs.
81-year-old Paul Harvey became well-known last September after his son Nick had recorded him improvising a two-minute piece from four notes—F natural, A, D, and B natural—and posted the footage on Twitter.
Nick posted the clip online to show how musical ability can survive memory loss ,and Paul captured the hearts of the British nation when he played the piano from his home in Sussex live on the television.
It was recorded by BBC Philharmonic orchestra as a single, with proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia, which campaigns for people with the condition to have free access to music as part of their care.
To mark a year since he played his composition on breakfast tv, Paul was invited to conduct the BBC Philharmonic orchestra playing two of his compositions at the studio in Salford.
He spent an emotional afternoon with the orchestra, during which he conducted both Four Notes, while his son Nick played the piano, and an older composition of his called Where’s the Sunshine.
Paul, a former music teacher and classical pianist, said, “It was magical, it was very, very special to work with such wonderful musicians.
“It made me feel alive, I couldn’t believe that an orchestra was playing my music and I was standing in front of it conducting them.
“I hadn’t conducted in such a long time before this, it was a real thrill.”
Paul was born in Stoke-on-Trent and studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music.
He became a composer—his Rumba Toccata is still used in grade 6 piano exams—and a concert pianist, appearing on the BBC Home Service in 1964.
But he decided to become a music teacher shortly before his eldest son Nick was born.
He spent 20 years teaching at the Imberhorne school, a comprehensive in East
Grinstead whose former pupils include Cutting Crew’s Nick Van Eede, famed for his hit ballad (I just) Died in Your Arms.
Five years ago, Paul moved into sheltered accommodation as part of his dementia care.
Nick, who joined Paul on the trip—organized by Music For Dementia—said he had seen his dad “come alive again” since the video of him playing piano went viral.
And he supported calls for music to be a key part of dementia sufferer’s care.
He said, “It moved dad and me and my two brothers beyond compare.
“It was a dream come true for dad to conduct and play with the an orchestra of that calibre as an 81 year old. It’s what dreams are made of.
“It was like an out-of-body experience.
“My dad is still reeling, he was having memories of what had happened over the last few days.
“His short term memory is generally shot to pieces but when big events like this happen it’s like a branding iron on his brain.
“From my experience with dad, the right piece of music at the right time can be absolutely incredible.
“You don’t have to be a talented musician to enjoy it though. Just listening to music, it starts to trigger memories of the past and gives people that connection.
“Dad was having a particularly bad day at the time. It was fascinating how getting dad at the piano at that time brought dad back to me.
“For the first time in years he has got active again. It really brought him back to life again. He’s playing the piano more than he has in the eight years.”
Campaign Director at Music for Dementia, Grace Meadows said, “It was magical and moving and wonderful to watch him be in his element.
“Seeing Paul the musician seeing beyond his diagnosis and have the contact with the musicians was a wonderful thing. It was very emotional.”